Lao Tzu was a philosopher and poet of ancient China. He is best known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism, but he is also revered as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. Although a legendary figure, he is usually dated to around the 6th century BC and reckoned a contemporary of Confucius, but some historians contend that he actually lived during the Warring States period of the 5th or 4th century BC. A central figure in Chinese culture, Lao Tzu is claimed by both the emperors of the Tang dynasty and modern commonfolk of the Li family as a founder of their lineage. Throughout history, Lao Tzu’s work has been embraced by various anti-authoritarian movements.
Lao Tsu taught that all straining, all striving are not only vain but counterproductive. One should endeavor to do nothing (wu-wei). But what does this mean? It means not to literally do nothing, but to discern and follow the natural forces — to follow and shape the flow of events and not to pit oneself against the natural order of things. First and foremost to be spontaneous in ones actions.
In this sense the Taoist doctrine of wu-wei can be understood as a way of mastering circumstances by understanding their nature or principal, and then shaping ones actions in accordance with these. This understanding has also infused the approach to movement as it is developed in Tai Chi Chuan.
Understanding this, Taoist philosophy followed a very interesting circle. On the one hand the Taoists, rejected the Confucian attempts to regulate life and society and counseled instead to turn away from it to a solitary contemplation of nature. On the other hand they believed that by doing so one could ultimately harness the powers of the universe. By ‘doing nothing’ one could ‘accomplish everything.’ Lao Tzu writes:
The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquillity.
In this way all things would be at peace.
In this way Taoist philosophy reached out to council rulers and advise them of how to govern their domains. Thus Taoism, in a peculiar and roundabout way, became a political philosophy. The formulation follows these lines:
The Taoist sage has no ambitions, therefore he can never fail. He who never fails always succeeds. And he who always succeeds is all- powerful.
From a solitary contemplation of nature, far removed from the affairs of men, can emerge a philosophy that has, both in a critical as well a constructive sense — a direct and practical political message. Lao Tzu writes:
Why are people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take life lightly.
Having to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.